Stem cell research efforts at 'U' continue despite controversy

By Josh Qian, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 29, 2012

Less than three months after the University’s first human embryonic stem cell line was approved and added to the National Institutes of Health registry, the University has been granted permission to add a second stem cell line, the 153rd stem cell line to be registered with the NIH.

NIH-registered stem cell lines are available to all research projects that receive funding from the NIH. The University is the only school from the Big Ten Conference to have successfully contributed to the registry and has also submitted two other cell lines that are still pending review.

According to Stephen Forrest, the vice president for research, stem cell research is a core area of scientific inquiry at leading institutions around the world today and holds great potential for new therapies for treating a wide range of diseases, and our leadership in that area could not only lead to many benefits to health, but also help diversify and strengthen our economy.

"For the University to remain a world-class contributor in the field of the health sciences, and for us to attract the best minds to the State of Michigan, it is imperative that we take a leadership role in the understanding and biological implications of stem cells," Forrest said,

The University’s most recent addition to the registry is human embryonic stem cell line UM11-1PGD, developed from 30 cells removed from a donated embryo.

The embryonic cells, which were donated to the University in 2011, carry the gene linked to Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. CMT is a genetic neurological disorder that affects motor and sensory nerves. In the United States, approximately one in 2,500 people is affected by CMT, which still has no known cure but can be treated with physical and occupational therapy.

According to the NIH, after a stem cell line is established, it can be grown indefinitely, and the replicated cells may be stored and distributed to other scientists to use in other research.

The researchers who receive the cells may “engineer” them to treat diseases or develop methods for procedures like stem cell transplantation.

Medical School Prof. Gary Smith, co-director of the Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies, developed the most recent stem cell line.

The stem cell research efforts would not have been possible if Michigan voters did not pass Proposal 2, a constitutional amendment to allow citizens to donate embryos from fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded.

“The acceptance of these cells to the registry demonstrates our attention to details of proper oversight, consenting and following of NIH guidelines,” Smith said.

Unlike other donated embryos, the one donated for UM11-1PGD was never frozen. The embryo instead was carried in a special container, which may give the stem cells unique and advantageous properties, according to a University press release.

The new line was approved despite the recent budget recommendation passed by the state’s House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education to cut the University’s state funding. The recommendation passed on March 30 after the University failed to provide the committee with data regarding its stem cell projects including the number of human embryos received, the number of human embryos held in storage and the number of stem cell lines that have been created from the embryos.

According to a press release from Rights to Life of Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder claimed that the requirement of the information asked of the University is unconstitutional and unenforceable.

However, the press release stated that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the chief legal adviser to the state government, said the legislature has the authority to request information from the state's public universities.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the disputes regarding what kind of information the subcommittee requires has not discouraged the University from pursuing stem cell research.

“Remember that the budget process is still very fluid and changing,” Fitzgerald said.